Quote of the day: DISTANCE

DISTANCE

Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.

–Rainer Maria Rilke

z2 heart of glass

MEDIA: President Obama’s eulogy for John Lewis

There has been a lot of talk about the mental health challenges that everyone is facing during this time of the global pandemic, political unrest, and financial turmoil. I feel it myself, and I witness it in the people that I work with. And I can attest that one thing that really helps is witnessing a public figure speak with real integrity and moral authority, as President Obama did at the funeral of Georgia Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis. Check it out for yourself.

EVENTS: Anniversary of Body and Soul Work

On this day in 1993, I hung out my shingle and launched the practice I call Body and Soul Work. I was ostensibly offering massage. In my heart I knew I was offering sacred intimacy, a term then virtually unknown outside the world of the Body Electric School and its devotees. Twenty-seven years later, I remain committed to this transformational work. I have had many teachers and have studied numerous additional modalities since then. But today I primarily want to thank the teachers that led me to my practice: Joseph Kramer, Keith Hennessy, Doug Fraser (RIP), Chester Mainard (RIP), and Irene Smith. And much gratitude to the clients who have honored me with their trust and openness, in whose presence I have learned and grown. (P.S. don’t try calling the number on the flyer — I got rid of my landline ages ago!)

first BSW flyer

Quote of the day: THERAPY

THERAPY

Aside from the relief Freud offered to the afflicted, he can also remind the rest of us that we are all troubled souls in one way or another that the seemingly robust and successful types that we envy may, more than anyone, be assailed by feelings of self-doubt and failure. To allow for natural unhappiness in our lives and not berate ourselves for feeling it is to stand against the tyranny of the positive-thinking ethos that surrounds us daily. The gift of therapy is not just to cure the deranged but to point all of us to where we have lost authorship of our stories, bring those reasons to consciousness and thus show us the gentle path to healing.

–Derren Brown, Happy

freud-quote-strength-1068x561

COVID-19: Let’s talk about sex

Pretty much exactly three months ago, the entire world came to a screeching halt. As the covid-19 pandemic made its way into every corner of the world, we entered a period of lockdown, working from home if you can, learning how to protect yourself if you fall into one of the categories of “essential workers.” Everything has changed — eating, sleeping, communicating with friends. We anxiously scour the news for reliable information on this new frightening unpredictable virus. For many people, mental health is a challenge; for almost everyone, the financial picture is alarming and uncertain. And then after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, we are witnessing a huge reckoning as Americans realize we can no longer avoid addressing systemic racism, police brutality, white supremacy, and racial inequality.

A subject that doesn’t get talked about as much but I know is on the minds of almost everyone I know: when am I going to have sex again? When our personal safety and public health depends on social distancing, wearing masks, and disinfecting everything in sight, what happens to physical intimacy, touch, and mutual erotic pleasure? Gay men of a certain age remember going through these convulsions decades ago, when HIV swept through our world and forced us to change our sexual behavior in order to survive. There are eerie similarities between the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the covid-19 pandemic, in terms of how it feels to live through these crises and make healthy choices around sexuality; there are also stark differences.

There’s a lot we don’t know, and what we do know is subject to constant revision. But I want to share a few resources that have crossed my path, for those who are trying to puzzle their way through this question of how to manage sex during this pandemic.

On thebody.com, an excellent website for people living with HIV/AIDS, associate editor Matthew Rodriquez published a sensible essay saying in print what many people have been thinking in private: “We Need a Plan for How to Have Casual Sex Again.”

thebody graphic on sex during pandemic

He cites the expertise of Dr. Julia Marcus, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School:

“In the case of staying home to prevent coronavirus transmission, we need to support people in doing that, but we also need to make sure we’re not sacrificing other aspects of people’s health,” [she says]. Of course, Marcus isn’t advocating that we throw away everything we know about social distancing rules and go back to our pre-COVID lives. “We need to support people in having some pleasure in their lives, enough that they can live through this pandemic in a sustainable way.”

The article also cites Mark D. Levine, chair of the New York City Council’s health committee, who called for an end to the “all or nothing” mentality behind the city’s current approach to distancing.

“Let’s give people the tools to understand that the riskiness of social activities lies on a spectrum. We are staring quarantine fatigue in the face. We need new guidance—and policies—to meet this challenge,” he tweeted. “If we don’t give people the information to choose low-risk activities, they will choose high-risk ones—like house parties, large gatherings in front of bars, or swimming at beaches without lifeguards. (All of which is already happening in NYC.)”

You can read the whole article online here.

On Tuesday May 26, Jeff Vilensky — the founder of MMX, a New York-based private membership group promoting the benefits of massage and healthy living — hosted a town hall/Zoom meeting on gay sex and harm reduction during the global pandemic. The guest speaker was Dr Demetre Daskalakis, queer health warrior, wisdom spreader, and deputy commissioner for the NYC Health Dept and Division for Disease Control.  (Dr. Demetre was part of a team that created a remarkably plain-spoken document, “Sex and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),” that attracted titillated attention from the mainstream media for its frank acknowledgement of gloryholes as a creative method of harm reduction.)

MMX has made the video of Dr. Demetre’s talk available publicly via YouTube:

The 16-minute video is worth watching in its entirety, but the gist of it is contained in a simple traffic-light metaphor of green light, yellow light, and red light.

greenlightyellowlightredlight

The Q&A afterwards was not included in the YouTube video, to respect the confidentiality of those who attended the town hall Zoom meeting, but in an email to the MMX membership Vilensky generously summarized the key points of the discussion that followed Dr. Demetre’s talk. With permission, I’m including the entire summary, in the interests of community education.

The Q&A included many different questions.  Some specific and some general.  Answers by the guest speaker followed a few themes along the lines of risk:

“Risk profile” is knowing and accepting that you may be asymptomatic and pass the virus to someone who is more susceptible to it than yourself. Know the science, stay up-to-date on data points, and use those to continuously evolve your choices. The ideal scenario is following current CDC/NYC Health Dept Guidelines (see links in the video). The “Harm Reduction Scenario” is following your best efforts to safeguard yourself and others. Evaluating the risk of all parties in this context, and make informed decisions based on your data, choices, needs, and desires.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing.”

Harm reduction is trying to limit your risk and at the same time limiting the risk of others who are potentially at higher probability of infection. We are human and we are gay men who crave physical connection. Think about what works for you now and the level of risk that you are willing to take, if any. Be judicious and understand the risk spectrum/perspective and where you fall on that spectrum.  (The doctor used the example: With regard to jumping off a cliff – Are you completely scared of heights?  Or are you a bungee jumper?  Where are you along that scale?)

BEHAVIOR: BEING OPEN, HONEST, and UPFRONT

Having frank and open conversations with sex partners about the following is extremely important right now:
– Activity and behavior
– Current exposure
– Symptoms
– Past exposure
– Antibody tests
– Level of risk you are willing to accept

Making decisions based on honest communication is extremely important. It shouldn’t be weird or uncomfortable to talk about COVID (just as you would about STIs).  Navigate this world we are in and avoid judgement. Judgement throws the conversation under the rug (shaming, feeling wrong). Everyone needs to feel comfortable enough to participate in open and honest communication.

Sex & Connection:

Prevent as much face-to-face interaction as possible. Stay distanced, or masked, or create a barrier to prevent the travel of respiratory droplets. Eye and face coverings throw the odds in your favor. Continue to use chat and video options. Develop scenes that protect you and your partner. Remember condoms? Incorporate your masks and gear into some fetish play. Be creative. Make it hot.

The virus is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets. If you keep your distance and use some form of a mask, you are likely at lower risk.

It’s important to have really good hygiene. This means washing before and after any physical contact. You’re going to want to thoroughly clean every part of your body that may have been exposed to droplets.  We are learning more everyday, but we don’t think this is sexually transmitted and if it is, it’s a very inefficient transmission method.

Questions for Yourself:

Where does my desire and right to pleasure live versus what my responsibility is to myself, my family, my close circle, and the general community? If you are going to hook up, what does it mean when you leave any encounter and go to another?  What’s at stake? Who’s at risk?

Not Recommending:

Gatherings of large groups.

Ignoring warnings and guidelines or throwing caution to the wind.

Not a good idea to “kiss grandma” if you are circulating.

Not a good idea to kiss at all outside your trusted partner.

Antibodies:

There were a lot of questions about those with antibodies and what that means in terms of transmission, reinfection, time lapse before having relations, etc.  A very complicated issue.

Having unprotected sex (no masks or social distance) with someone who has the antibodies can give you a higher sense of safety. But there is still not yet enough definitive evidence that people with antibodies are immune from reinfection.

All the health organizations say those who have antibodies for COVID-19 are not necessarily immune. However, the data implies that it seems highly unlikely or rare that a COVID reinfection can occur for most people. We think that COVID-19 infection equals some amount of immunity for some amount of time. However, there is still a lot of uncertainty. There’s no definitive evidence that there is immunity or at least long-term immunity. However, the risk of reinfection for someone who has tested positive is realistically very low and possibly even non-existent.

Many of the antibody tests are not so great. The ones that are FDA-approved and are being done in New York are pretty good but some of them cross-react with other common strains of coronavirus. So a positive antibody test could mean you’ve had another coronavirus, but not COVID-19.

In the case of having sex with your partner: if he’s at least 10 days past his initial signs or symptoms and has not had a fever for 72 hours, the risk of him transmitting the virus to you is very low. This also holds true for the risk of becoming reinfected, which means that it is probably safe for him to have sex again.

Understand all the caveats and uncertainty wrapped around this topic.

HIV Meds:

There is no study that concludes that being on HIV meds confers any specific protection from COVID-19 other than keeping your HIV viral load suppressed.  It does clearly look to lower risk of more severe complications from COVID-19 should you contract the virus.

The Beach:

The virus is unlikely transmitted by surfaces, but washing your hands is important. Saline and heat destroy the virus, so it’s not in salt water or hot sand. But the hot guy sitting in the sand next to you that you decide to make out with is a potential risk!

Traveling with others?  A strategy to consider is to isolate yourself a few days before you enter into a new scenario.

Creating Connections:

There was a discussion about those creating “pods” or groups that have formed or are forming to become your current “household”.  This also can pertain to group shares. The same risks are inherent here given those in your pod will be expanding their contacts and interactions. It goes back to hand hygiene, face coverings, open honest communication, risk assessment, and evolving your own risk profile within the context.

Testing Frequency:

There is some notion to test frequently and we may see this more in the future. Understand the difference between the active “viral” test and the “antibody” test.  There are some occupations that are now being told to test once a week or once every couple of weeks. Right now, if possible, getting tested on a regular basis (every 3-4 weeks) may be a good plan.  Be sure that if you’re feeling symptoms then you go home and stay home until you get your test results.

The viral test is for a current diagnosis of an active infection. There are 3 types of tests for this: swab up your nose, swab in mouth, spit test.

The antibody test is not for diagnosis. It tells you if you have been exposed in the past. Neither test is perfect!

Anal Shedding:

Not as much data on anal shedding as from nasal shedding. For respiratory and nasal, viral traces can sometimes be present up to six weeks after complete resolution of symptoms. Data for anal is unclear. The test looks for the genetic material, but it does not tell you if the virus is alive or not. The CDC did a study where they swabbed people, many days after they developed symptoms, and what they found is not one human swab had the active, live virus after day 9. So it’s possible to extrapolate this for COVID-19 in feces;  that it could be there for a very long time, but it doesn’t mean anything if it’s not living.

Being a Carrier / Asymptomatic:

Most people who have been exposed to COVID develop symptoms within 5 to 7 days (could be up to 14 but rare). Remember, there are people who get exposed who have very mild symptoms or are asymptomatic. Guidance is, if you were to get tested without symptoms, wait for your results or wait 10 days before you go out into the world.  You don’t carry COVID-19 for years or months or weeks.  You get the infection and then it goes away. There does not appear to be a carrier state for COVID-19. If you had the infection, you should be “done” with it if it’s been 10 days since you first had symptoms and if you haven’t had a fever for 72 hours. However, for people with a weakened immune system it could last up to 21 days. Reinfection may happen but it doesn’t seem to be common or frequent.

Stopping PreP:

One way to go about this is PreP on Demand. Take 2 pills from 2 to 24 hours before you have sex. Take 1 pill 24 hours after that, and another pill 24 hours after that.

STI Clinics and Avail of Testing Sites:

There is a grassroots movement to eradicate / dramatically lower STIs while in the midst of this pandemic.  Tomik Dash, an MMX Pro, is one of the founders of sexrev20.org. He asked the doctor when we might see the city’s sexual health workers re-allocated back to their original posts (presumably, testing and treatment in NYC is hard to get at this time).  They are looking earnestly at this, as more and more health centers and sexual health clinics are becoming fully operational again. There is currently tele-medicine for sexual health, and the Chelsea and Fort Greene clinics are open for on the phone consultations.

Speaking for myself, I appreciate the good work of these health professionals in communicating this information to the public as clearly as possible. If you have further questions, concerns, or resources to share, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

SEEING WHITE: resources for Justice in June

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer is just one (and not even the most recent) incident in a long shameful history of black Americans being treated as if their lives have no value. The video footage of Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 43 seconds has galvanized a worldwide response demanding action, education, and change. There’s lots to do and many choices to make. One place to start is this curriculum called “Justice in June.” This resource was compiled by Autumn Gupta with Bryanna Wallace’s oversight for the purpose of providing a starting place for individuals trying to become better allies.

For white people engaged in anti-racist work, our most important task is to examine our own experiences as white people — how we have been educated, steeped in, benefit from and yet are trained not to notice white supremacy and racial inequality all around us. White people need to talk to white people about this. I’m in this conversation and welcome anyone who wants to join me.

This image was created by Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (2005) and adapted by Ellen Tuzzolo (2016), Mary Julia Cooksey Cordero (2019), and the Conscious Kid (@theconsciouskid on Instagram, 2020).

white supremacy iceberg

COVID-19: best practices if you have symptoms

We’ve all heard plenty of sound advice from medical professionals about what to do to avoid exposure to covid-19 in hopes of not getting sick. What happens if you do get sick? I feel like I’ve read a lot of fairly general instructions, but nothing as specific and clear as this information shared on Twitter by a nurse. I can imagine that many people who have symptoms (or think they might have symptoms, which probably most of us do from time to time) panic a little and everything you’ve heard about what to do next flies out of your head. If that were me, I would be following these guidelines to the letter:

“What I have seen a lot of are recommendations for how to try to avoid getting COVID in the first place — but what I have NOT seen a lot of is advice for what happens if you get it.
You basically want to prepare as though you know you’re going to get a nasty respiratory bug, like bronchitis or pneumonia. Just have the foresight to know it ‘might’ come your way!

1. Things you should actually buy ahead of time:
– kleenex
– acetaminophen (Tylenol)
– whatever your generic, mucus thinning cough medicine of choice (check the label and make sure you’re not doubling up on acetaminophen)
– honey and lemon can work just as well
– vicks vaporub for your chest is also a great suggestion

2. if you don’t have a humidifier, that would be a good thing to buy and use in your room when you go to bed overnight. (you can also just turn the shower on hot and sit in the bathroom breathing in the steam)

3. If you have a history of asthma and you have a prescription inhaler, make sure the one you have isn’t expired and refill it / get a new one if necessary

4. have your favorite soup on hand

5. stock up on whatever your favorite clear fluids are to drink – though plain water is fine; you may appreciate some variety

SYMPTOM MANAGEMENT
a. if you have a fever over 38C / 100.4F, take Acetaminophen rather than ibuprofen
b. hydrate (drink!), hydrate, hydrate
c. rest lots. even if you are feeling better, you may still be infectious for 14 days and older people and those with preexisting conditions should be avoided
d. ask friends and family to leave supplies outside to avoid contact.
You may not NEED TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL unless you are having trouble breathing or your fever is very high (over 39C / 102F) and unmanaged with meds. 90% of healthy adult cases thus far have been managed at home.

bedtime

COVID-19: musical interlude

I’m assuming you’re equipping yourself with lots of useful information about riding out the covid-19 pandemic in healthy ways. I will post things from time to time that I find especially valuable, in case they haven’t cross your path. Someone shared this video with me that I now play at least once a day, as a way of remembering that however far apart we have to be right now, we can choose to be “for each other.”

LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: Performance anxiety

It’s a big day in a man’s erotic life the first time he loses his erection in the midst of a sexual encounter. It can feel like a tragic self-betrayal, a terrible humiliation, proof that he’s broken and can never have sex again. The good news is that if he’s lucky and he hangs in there, he gets to the red-letter day when he discovers that he can lose his erection AND stay connected to his partner. In fact, that’s where the good stuff begins.

It takes some maturity, some practice, some support, and a little bit of a leap of faith to view erectile dysfunction simply as a mechanical failure, not a comment on your masculinity or a referendum on your worth as a human being. It’s a life-changing experience to realize that being a wonderful lover isn’t just about what you do with your penis but what you do with your hands, your mouth, your voice, your sense of humor, your energy, and your heart.

Erections are great and fun and super-pleasurable. But it’s exhausting and challenging to operate under pressure to Perform Like a Porn Star, constantly worrying – to put it bluntly – about your dick: is it big enough, is it hard enough, am I doing it right, am I going to come too fast, am I taking too long? Performance anxiety is the enemy of erotic intelligence, at least the way I understand it, which is the ability to be present for pleasure, to tune into your partner and what’s going on right here right now, without getting wrapped in trying to make something specific happen.

It’s not just men who struggle with performance anxiety. Social media has ramped up perfectionism for all of us. We spend a lot of time fixated on Getting It Right. We’re constantly tailoring our appearance and our behavior for each other’s approval. It’s an existential challenge to let all that go and leave reserve performance anxiety for people who are onstage performing.

In my work and in my life, I’m all about healing through pleasure, learning for myself and teaching other people how to turn down the volume on Pressure to Perform and be present for pleasure.

In workshops or in sessions when we’re focusing on intimacy, sometimes I will have partners spend time gazing into each other’s eyes, exploring the notion of the eyes as gateway to the soul, “into-me-you-see.” This can be beautiful, and it can also feel really vulnerable. We take in A LOT of information visually, and we live in a culture that has become hyper-focused on evaluation, stirring up equal amounts of judgment and fear of being judged.

So if we’re working on cultivating the capacity to be present for pleasure, sometimes it makes sense to close the eyes, to turn down the volume on incoming visual stimulus.

If you want to practice being present for pleasure right now, one way to do that is to let your eyes gently close and go inside. With your eyes gently closed, the idea is to take a moment to breathe, go inside, and take a break from processing visual information, judging and being judged.

As you let yourself breathe, bring your awareness to the way gravity works on your body. Let your face muscles rest, let your jaw soften, let your shoulders rest. Feel your buttocks on the seat of your chair, your feet on the floor. You don’t have to change anything or do anything special. Just take a moment to breathe and make space for what happens when you withdraw the sense of sight. Do things quiet down inside, do they rev up, do they stay the same? Try it now and just let yourself notice what happens.

Part of erotic intelligence is expanding your awareness of your own body. Notice the temperature of the air in the room against your skin. Notice the places where your clothing touches your skin, whether it feels soft, constricting, comforting, annoying. Notice what sounds you’re aware of in the room right now. Notice which sensations are pleasurable, what you’d like more of, what you’d like less of.

With a trusted sensual partner, closing your eyes or using a blindfold can be a simple tool for cultivating erotic intelligence. Removing one sense can heighten others. Light touch and pleasant sounds can be amplified, as can tastes and fragrances. The uncertainty of what happens next can create a luscious experience of anticipation and seductiveness. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, but be right here right now, taking in whatever sensory information is available.

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Note: this was part of a talk I gave November 9, 2019, as part of “Sessions Live,” Esther Perel’s online salon for sex therapists and coaches.

EVENTS: Sessions Live 2019 with Esther Perel

I had the pleasure last weekend of participating in “Sessions Live 2019: In Search of Eros,” an all-day gathering convened and hosted by Esther Perel, who’s probably the most famous sex-and-relationship therapist in the world right now. Her books (Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs) and her TED talks (on desire and infidelity) have acquired a passionate following worldwide, as evidenced by the sold-out crowd of 400 who showed for the live event November 9 in midtown Manhattan (many of whom flew in from other countries) and the 1200 people viewing at home via Livestream.

11-9 in search of eros

A New York resident born in Belgium and educated in Israel, Esther brings a distinctly European flavor to her work, so what might have been a typical therapy conference with parade of academic talking heads became something else – a lively salon with a dynamic array of speakers presenting in a variety of formats with a very engaged audience,  fueled by delicious food.

The morning began with an on-your-feet warm-up conducted by Esther along with 5 Rhythms teacher Amber Ryan, psychoanalyst Aviva Gitlin, and therapist-performer-ritualist Paul Browde. Esther gave an opening talk called “Finding the Erotic Self:  A Journey for Practitioners,” which included dialogue with Alexandra Solomon. Before lunch, Holly Richmond talked about her work helping trauma survivors recover their sexuality, and I spoke about my own concentration on healing through pleasure.

11-9 esther and don onstage

After lunch Sara Nasserzadeh led the participants through a modified Sexual Attitudes Reassessment. Then there were presentations about erotic obstacles by Ian Kerner (author of She Comes First), psychologist Guy Winch, and the two young co-founders of the St. Louis-based educational company Afrosexology, Dalychia Saah and Rafaella Fiallo. The last hour brought a free-flow of questions and commentary from audience members both in the room and watching via Livestream.

11-8 reception at esthers

Women dominate the field of therapy and social work, and certainly Esther’s audience was 75-80% women (as became clear at the reception she hosted the night before — above), which is why she asked me to address the issues that men bring to a sex therapist. I talked about the dance between performance anxiety and being present for pleasure, the lessons I learned about erotic energy from Joseph Kramer and the Body Electric School, the paradox of pornography as liberator and oppressor, and my own formula for satisfying sexual encounters (PCM: your own Pleasure, Connection with your partner, and the Mechanics of what goes up and down, in and out).

For the rest of the day, I spent every break being pulled aside by people saying, “Do you have a minute? I have a question about…” I heard very touching stories from men who hailed from Iceland, Poland, and China, and female therapists who work with very specific populations (Catholic priests, homeless mentally ill, Jersey guys).

11-9 group shot

I walked away from the event feeling nourished by the high level of powerful questions that the day generated: What’s the difference between sex and eroticism? If I’m struggling to figure out what I want, what happens if I ask myself “What am I missing?” Which of the senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) is most erotic to me? Which ones do I need to ramp up in my life? How do we teach vulnerability to young men who have no experience of that? How do we deal with different stages of erotic life?